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Singular Approach: Bryan brothers coming full circle in final season

Singular Approach: Bryan brothers coming full circle in final season

Bob and Mike Bryan, the greatest doubles team in men’s tennis history, will go about 2020 like they’ve gone about their entire careers: together.

Two teenagers show up at Flushing Meadows in 1995. Wide-eyed, the twin pride and joy of Camarillo, CA share an exuberance with the city that never sleeps. The boys approach the tournament credential office, marching in sync, ready for a lifelong dream to begin.

“What are you doing?” inquires a supervisor. “The ball kids’ office is behind, if you’re looking for meal coupons.” 

The bewildered brothers insist they are here to play tennis at the highest level, but are turned away, for the time being. It’s an unfortunate oversight for the attendant, unaware that Bob and Mike Bryan will one day become the saviors of modern-era doubles. 

Ten years later, after losing in the season’s first three Grand Slam finals, the Bryans returned to New York City with more than just a pair of credentials and chips on their shoulders. At a press conference, the pair announced they were challenging in a different kind of court. They were now players as well as plaintiffs: the Bryans, along with 43 of their colleagues, filed an injunction to block ATP rules changes that included requiring players to use singles rankings for doubles draw entry. 

With extra fire in their bellies, the determined tandem captured their first US Open crown, defeating top seeds Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi, 6–1, 6–4, and continued campaigning to raise money for legal fees by putting on exhibitions across the country.   

The Bryans have stuck together in the pros for more than two decades. In 2018, while Bob was injured, Mike won Wimbledon, the US Open and ATP Finals with Jack Sock. The twins reunited the following season, adding titles at Delray Beach and Miami. (Getty Images)

“That’s one of the things were most proud about. We were able to turn  the tide there and secure doubles’ place in history,” Bob says. “That was a scary time. “We’ve never really taken a chance to look at the trophies and stuff we’ve achieved,” the 41-year-old goes on. “We’ve always been pushing forward, looking for the next thing to improve.”

In the end, the lawsuit was dismissed, and a compromise was met: singles rankings weren’t ultimately required to play doubles, but could be used for team entries into events. At ATP and WTA sanctioned events, no-ad scoring and match tiebreakers in third sets were implemented to speed up play. While the new doubles normal was dubbed a lottery by the tennis community, the overhaul effectively lengthened careers. Daniel Nestor, described by Mike as “the constant who always rose to the occasion,” didn’t stop playing until he was 46.

The legendary Canadian believes his principal rivals seamlessly evolved with the times by possessing zero weaknesses and mastering the art of winning on every surface. “They have the power necessary to stay with younger players, as well as the feel and creativity from the last generation,” says Nestor, winner of eight doubles majors. “They are recognizable everywhere in the world and grew the popularity of the game with unmatched energy and dominance.”

Long removed from the Kalamazoo junior title that originally sent them to the US Open, Bob, the lefty, and Mike, the righty, stand as the most accomplished men’s doubles team in tennis history. The winners of a career Golden Slam, which includes 16 major titles and the 2012 Olympic gold medal, the Bryans have unequivocally rewritten the record books. Trophies have been lifted at virtually every venue they’ve visited—119 in all, through February. The two have finished as the year-end No. 1 team 10 times. Their chest-bump celebration matured into a global trademark of the discipline they’ve passionately revered and safeguarded. 

“They have the power necessary to stay with younger players, as well as the feel and creativity from the last generation," says Daniel Nestor. (Getty Images)

And now, they are ready to say goodbye. After Bob suffered a right hip injury that required resurfacing with a metal implant, he and his younger brother—a fact that was overturned 41 years after Mike believed he entered the world first—are in the midst of making one final push. Bob and wife Michelle are parents of three children, Micaela, Bobby Jr. and Richard. Mike and newlywed Nadia are expecting their first baby, a boy, due on, of all days, April 29—the brothers’ birthday. 

With fulfilling futures to look forward to, both Bryans intend to leave everything on the court as they put the final touches on a groundbreaking career. “I’m so happy we’ll be able to retire together,” Bob says. “We never once considered breaking up and looking for another partner. “Fourteen Grand Slam finals we’ve lost. You walk around like a zombie for a week after those. Not once did we go talk about it with someone else in the locker room, another player or look over our shoulder to find a greener pasture. It was always a package deal, that we were sticking it out.”

For Mike, this season encompasses a gratifying trip down memory lane. “We’re going to pick the places where we have the most special memories,” he says. “We want to be healthy and feeling great, so we can play with the energy and passion we had when we were fresh on tour. Let that spill out to the fans, thank them for supporting us all of these years.” 

One of those places was meant to be Indian Wells, a site the Bryans long called their home tournament. For years now, the BNP Paribas Open has given doubles a platform, putting matches on choice courts for its fan base to eat up. With top singles players eager to vie for another trophy alongside established teams, the doubles product is a popular staple around the magnetic venue. 

The same can be said for the Bryan Bros Band. Mike handles guitar and drums, Bob plays the keyboard, and father Wayne chimes in. Distinguished friends, like Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine, often join to help the group jam out to thousands of supporters.

“We [once] thought we were going to be rock stars,” Mike joked.

Like touring musicians, though, time on the road is a sense of normalcy for Bob’s family. Before Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr. (daughter of Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian) won hearts over on Instagram, Micaela Bryan set the gold standard on social media, thanks to creative speech balloons featuring tennis stars like Serena and Novak Djokovic. 

Bob and Mike have won every Grand Slam tournament at least twice. Their first title came at the 2003 French Open, while their most recent major triumph occurred six years ago at the US Open, a title that marked their 100th together. “It’s our favorite Slam,” says Mike. “The fans are just off the charts. They bring the energy every time. We want to play well there. It’s the granddaddy of all the Slams.” (Getty Images)

Today, Micaela is 8, with a broad grasp of her dad’s profession, and relishing opportunities to share in it. “I told Micaela the plans for retirement. She actually was crying,” Bob says. “She was like, ‘You can still go back. If you’re retired, you can still come back and play, right?’ She got emotional, which was a little sad. “I think she loves coming on the court after the matches,” Bob went on, “hitting balls into the crowd. It’s become her routine.”

Micaela’s uncle Mike has grown to appreciate his brother’s ability to harmonize two separate worlds. Over the years, he’s accumulated insider tips and training on how to win off the court, in parenting. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the process, so I can try to apply that to my kid. It’s going to be an amazing experience,” Mike says. “I can see the love he has for his kids and the way he sees the world is totally different. I’m happy to be in that place with him.”

The soon-to-be 42-year-olds have decided that their final duet will come at the US Open. Twenty-five years after their Big Apple debut, the tournament will be much more than a full-circle moment. It will be a celebration of two extraordinary torchbearers who have generously led the charge with competency and conviction. 

From outmaneuvering masters of the poach with silky finesse and adapting to game-changing rules, to conquering contemporary tactics built on staying back, and later I-formation, the Bryan brothers have soared with every challenge thrown their way. Headliners know how to bring it home, and for these two high-flying twins from California, six match-closing chest bumps is the designed setlist for New York.